The Singapore Convention : Decisions, Decisions

Bill Wood discusses the choice between opt-in and opt-out systems under the Singapore Convention

There is no mistaking the general excitement that has surrounded the recent signing of the Singapore Convention[1]. It is seen as recognition that mediation has now achieved such maturity and acceptance internationally that it deserves the status that arbitration has enjoyed since the New York Convention of 1959.

The place of signing is significant too. Singapore has again enthusiastically grasped the opportunity to brand itself as a new and dynamic international dispute resolution centre.

The Convention has been supported by the signatures of 46  countries including China and the United States. The UK along with the rest of the EU has remained aloof thus far. Indeed the Times recently speculated as to whether our abstention will diminish London’s standing as a forum for international disputes and damage trade generally [2].

Of course it is important to remember that no country has yet ratified.  When the moment of ratification comes countries will have an important choice to make. Article 8 of the Convention allows ratifying countries either to bring the Convention into law as an opt-in regime (where the parties expressly elect to submit to  the enforcement rules when settling) or as an opt-out (where the default setting is that the enforcement rules do apply). Paragraph 1(b) runs as follows:

            “1.  A party to the Convention may declare that

                        … (b) it shall apply this Convention only to the extent that the parties to the settlement agreement have agreed to the application of the Convention.”

There was understandably lengthy discussion of this clause during the drafting of the Convention and it is going to be an absolutely critical choice. Many of us have wondered whether at the moment of concluding a settlement parties will find opting-in an easy matter to agree. One assumes that in the average money dispute the paying party may not be enthusiastic about agreeing to grant his opponent supercharged enforcement powers.

It is easy to forget that because of Article 6 of the EU Mediation Directive EU countries have had similar enforcement  processes available for cross-border mediation settlements for some years now. Where a settlement “results from mediation” the parties, if they all agree, can apply to the court for a Mediation Settlement  Enforcement Order or MSEO[3]. When granted by the court this gives the settlement the enforcement statues of a judgment. Like the Singapore Convention it copes with situation  where proceedings have not yet been started and the parties do not have the option of enshrining their settlement in a consent award or judgment . (Unlike the Singapore Convention an application to the court is needed.)

This provision passed into law in 2011  but, to the best of my knowledge at least, it has disappeared utterly without trace. I have not heard it raised as an issue or  discussed by lawyers or  colleagues at any point in the eight years of its life to date and as far as I am aware no application for an MSEO has ever been made[4]. So much for an opt-in system.

Is the lesson of the MSEO  experience  that  Singapore Convention countries should choose an opt-out  system?

Or is another possible lesson that enforcement is not actually a major consideration and that concerns about enforcement are not in fact a significant brake on the advance of international mediation at all.

Parties mediating disputes post-litigation in England and Wales routinely agree “Tomlin orders”, consent orders embodying the settlement.  Pre-litigation parties cannot do so. Parties should not feel they have to start proceedings to get an enforceable deal. All perfectly rational.

But  in the long list of reasons that over the years I have heard given for parties being reluctant to move to mediation (“I don’t wish to appear weak”, “I don’t know what mediation is”, “Can I trust the mediator/the opposition to respect confidentiality” , “I don’t wish to appear weak”) I have to say I cannot remember hearing  enforcement worries mentioned.

The vast majority of commercial disputes whether domestic or international end in settlement. There is nothing about a mediated settlement as distinct from a negotiated settlement that makes it intrinsically more vulnerable to being disregarded. Where the parties in the negotiations which I facilitate have concerns about the other side’s willingness or ability to perform  that can be policed in the agreement. For example if a party has spent the mediation complaining of poverty and arguing that the case should settle because “there will be nothing left at the end of a trial” then the solution may be to make performance a condition subsequent to the agreement. If the defendant doesn’t pay the claimant’s claim revives.

The Singapore Convention is a welcome celebration of the arrival of mediation as a mature participant on the world stage and a  welcome celebration of Singapore itself. But as one observer wittily  put it: “I’m a huge fan of the Singapore convention, it’s all the stuff about enforcement I am not sure about ”.

How much practical effect the Convention is going to have will clearly  depend on choices yet to be made by the countries who ratify and the choices subsequently made by the parties themselves.


[1] The UN Convention on International Settlement Agreements resulting from Mediation.

[2] “Could the UK’s absence from the Singapore convention harm its post-Brexit prospects?” Times, 5th September 2019.

[3] CPR 78.24.

[4] If you have a drawer full of MSEOs in your litigation department please let me know; I will be delighted to publish a correction.

Brexit and Other Puzzles

Mediators and mediation featured twice in the London papers last weekend.

The first and least obvious reference was a crossword clue: 2 down in Saturday‘s daily Telegraph crossword clue read:

“Press and TV nonsense upset referee.“ (8 letters)

Meanwhile and less trivially the Financial Times carried the suggestion that in tackling Brexit “the UK and the EU should immediately engage a mediator – former President Barack Obama could be a candidate.”

The immediate consequence of that suggestion has been a fascinating online debate amongst mediators. Some think that any such involvement would be a disastrous over-reach for the work we do, and the skill set we possess. Others support the suggestion and think that active listening and re-framing would help the parties resolve their profound structural and cognitive problems.  

My Brick Court colleague John Sturrock asks tellingly why the developed world is only too ready to recommend mediation to others to deal with conflicts around the world but regards its own problems as too sophisticated to benefit from it.

These issues clearly have a distance yet to run and will be tackled in future posts. But stepping back, what is striking is that we see an increasing national familiarity with the whole idea of mediation. The fact is that people and organisations who hit conflict increasingly see mediation as one of the options. It is becoming culturally normal. Increasingly they know (albeit roughly) what it is. Some of them even know the difference between arbitration and mediation.

I do not think that 15 (maybe even 10) years ago “mediator” would have featured as an answer to a crossword clue, still less as an answer to a major national issue.

If I could deconstruct the clue for you it goes like this:

“Press and TV“ = MEDIA

“nonsense upset“ is “ROT“ turned upside down =TOR The whole means some form of umpire.

Media + tor = MEDIATOR

The idea that there might be alternatives to litigation or abuse or violence is seeping rather than flooding into the national consciousness. But one article, one crossword clue at a time it is getting there.

Bill Wood QC contemplates the incidentals: food, doors and Pinocchio

Mediation rooms tend to be unremarkable places. They do not have the structure and style of a courtroom.  Yet in these often plain spaces, we are privileged to witness great dramas, personal, commercial even political.  Shakespeare’s reference to “a great reckoning in a little room[1] comes to mind. To be fair he was probably referring to the death of his friend Christopher Marlowe in a fight over a bar bill.  But even that was a mediation of a kind I suppose.

The little room, the environment and the incidentals do matter of course. In fact, they are often memorable.

Now don’t get me wrong. I am not a furniture fiddler. There are those who teach that to lay the foundations of a good mediation you should arrive at the mediation centre long before the parties and make subtle adjustments to the furniture to create the best possible environment. “Could you turn towards me slightly Mr Jenkins, I’m not quite getting your body language”. You know the sort of thing. 

But there are certain rooms in certain solicitors’ offices which I will only ever enter reluctantly, haunted as they are by flashbacks of bruising and protracted encounters from the past. To me they reek of impasse even now.

We see less these days of the old cliche of putting the away team in a windowless room while the home team luxuriate in a light-filled corner suite. And food discrimination is rarer now. (A word of advice to those contemplating serving their own clients a dripping roast while handing a packet of crisps to the opposition: make sure the home team’s room does not have interior windows and the ice sculpture is not readily observable from outside. Or there will be trouble.)

I swear one London firm used to calibrate the lunches it served by reference to the strength of the case they were advancing at the mediation. You knew they had a drawerful of statutory defences when the cheese and pickle sandwiches appeared. But when the roast bass and the braised fennel were served it was likely that their clients were on rockier ground.

Then the stationery drawers: I find a long wait between offers can be enlivened by doing a still life of an apple using the in-house highlighter pens (red, green, yellow – it all makes sense). Or you can take a tour of corridors to see the law firm’s art collection. Victor Pasmore and Howard Hodgkin are ubiquitous (who is complaining). Simmons and Simmons have some quite punchy Tracy Emins which I always enjoy. And I often seek consolation from one firm’s stunning Jim Dine etching of Pinocchio; particularly comforting when the parties’ discussions seem to lack a proper degree of candour.

Climate matters too. I mediated a case about the adequacy of the air-conditioning in an office building. Unfortunately, we mediated on site. The tenant had undoubtedly turned the heating up to maximum to prove his point. But the landlord and his team entered fully into the spirit of things by sweating through the day with their jackets firmly on at all times. “Temperature’s perfect, Bill. Can’t see the problem” says the red-faced chief executive.

Which brings me inevitably to doors.The modern office door is designed to expose visitors to the maximum amount of ridicule. Frequently they are so heavy that only a circus strongman can open them. And be careful. The ones that promise to open inwards open out. The ones that promise to open outwards open in.  And woe betide you if you failed to spot the slider. A really well-designed office features a cunning mixture all three.  Taking Party A’s offer to Party B involves a Rubik’s cube problem of such complexity you are liable to forget the figure. No doubt the local inhabitants derive hours of harmless fun as they watch our struggles. Perhaps it’s reassuring that at 5pm these gifted and observant peacemakers are pushing on a door they should be pulling just as enthusiastically as they did at the start of the day.

I would write more but I think the Claimant is ready for me with a new number.   Now how does this door work?


[1] As You Like It, Act 3, scene 3.

Paris: The Capital of Negotiation?

Paris has recently had a reputation for confrontation. But a hundred years ago  the allied powers (principally France, the US and Britain led by Clemenceau, Woodrow Wilson and Lloyd George respectively) were in Paris negotiating the Treaty of Versailles. Clemenceau had just survived an assassination attempt. He observed wryly that even after the greatest war in history a Frenchman had taken seven shots at him at close range and only hit him once: proof if it were needed that however dark the circumstances humour always has a role to play.

A hundred years on and the second weekend in February saw the international mediation community (including three of the Brick Court team) descend upon Paris for the festival of negotiation that is the ICC Mediation Competition. Law students from France, the US and Britain and upwards of thirty other countries from all across the globe descend to compete in a mediation moot. Professional mediators conduct the mediations and score the students’ performances.

Political references are still not far away: this year the running gag at the conference was the very notion that Brits should be teaching anybody about process design or negotiation.

The students are hugely enthusiastic and negotiate skilfully, always in English and often a long way from their native language.

They relish the co-operative style of working, clearly enjoying the change from the orthodox models offered in their professional training. Each team gets a confidential briefing setting out their party’s deeper interests and plans for the future. The problems usually offer some crock of gold in terms of future collaboration. One party turns out to have a warehouse full of size 8 left shoes. But wait: the other party has a warehouse full of size 8 right… well you can imagine. Always a win-win. It is great to have the chance of a happy ending and a refreshing change for the jaded ADR hacks who officiate.

And yet, and yet…. It can lead to a relentlessly collaborative approach that ignores the difficult issues and the hard exchanges. We all know that if you don’t acknowledge the anger/disappointment/affront /betrayal that has got you into the mediation you are going to be in trouble later; if you don’t let the monsters into the room they will wait outside and bite you later.

Back in the real world I often recall for parties the shortest opening statement that I have ever heard: three words, the first beginning with “F”, the second being “you”  and the third an anatomical term. As a statement of case it was not only more succinct than the sixteen pages of close contractual analysis offered on the other side, it also kick-started the negotiation far more effectively. Mediators would recognise immediately the opportunity that those words offered. We settled, admittedly at 10 pm. I don’t recommend the three-word approach as a formulation to get you into the finals in Paris. But, as the 2019 winners,  University of Auckland team,  clearly  grasped, some grit in the mix is essential. “This why I am angry. Why are you angry?”

As I sat in the departure lounge I contemplated the zero-sum mediation I was returning to conduct in London; claims on the  aviation insurance market arising from an air crash. Collaboration? Er…no. Future business? Um… with the airline in liquidation probably not.

Sitting at the gate I was surrounded by tired children wearing Micky Mouse ears and their even more tired parents, clearly a tremendous trip. They had all been to Disneyland.

Perhaps we all had.

Geoff Sharp, John Sturrock and Bill Wood attended the Paris competition.

Of Team Selection And Other Trials

Mediators think they probably have the best job in the world and they do not often make a plea for sympathy. But here goes.

As parties using mediation grow in confidence they have increasingly firm ideas as to how to conduct the mediation day. They are likely to have firm plans, for example, as to who should speak in the plenary session, when the first offer should be made and when and if clients should speak direct. All good.

Interestingly they also have firm ideas as to how the other side should conduct themselves. More difficult. We frequently mediate between parties who approach the mediation day in radically different ways and a conflict develops over process as intense as the dispute itself. One side may want the first offer at 10:15 am. The other wants an exhaustive series of meetings between the experts before any negotiation can happen. Choice of representative is particularly tricky. It could be “Where is Mr. Jones. None of the people attending know anything about this dispute” or as easily “Why is Jones coming? He is far too close to this dispute. He will never let them settle.”

This sort of dispute can start bubbling away well in advance of the mediation and the parties try to get the mediator involved. It happened today. I was copied in on an exchange in which one party suggested that both sides’ experts should attend next week’s mediation. His opposite number went straight into Caps Lock: “Our Mr. Jones will NOT BE ATTENDING”.

Unsurprisingly attempts to pick the other side’s team can touch a nerve.

“Good morning Sir Alex.

Arsene, how nice to hear from you. How can I help?

Well, I just wanted to share a few ideas about your back four for Saturday’s game.

Yes absolutely. Always worth listening to. Fire away…”

These rows can be an unhelpful start to the mediator’s involvement in the dispute. It is hard to build rapport with a party when your first telephone call   apparently adopts criticism of their strategy.   One has to tread carefully to avoid seeming to have adopted the opponent’s position. Following a volcanic discussion with Party A you call Party B. “Am I right in getting a slight sense that the parties have different views about representation?”

We will try to resolve these issues. They can give the mediator lots of clues to the psychology of the dispute. And parties do sometimes agree to review and change their approach. But in the end both sides only have the sanction of withdrawal as their sure remedy. The other side’s approach is the other side’s approach and you either work with it or you don’t mediate at all.

So, we will do our best but in the end it is your call.